Garden Details: English Edition – Steps

These pics are from Dartington Hall Gardens in Totnes, England.  This garden was designed in the early 20th century primarily by Percy Cane, with American landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, who worked more on the formal courtyard (not shown in the pics below – will be later).

The topic of today’s post is “steps in the landscape.”  Steps have a variety of roles to play in garden design.  First, of course, is practical.  They enable the easiest traversing of steep areas in the smallest space possible.  Steps can also be used:

  • to reinforce a visual or thematic axis;
  • as an architectural device to reveal landforms;
  • to create mystery, to entice one to see where they lead;
  • to provide seating for contemplation or people watching;
  • as a symbolic gesture, for example to signify power or transcendence;
  • and as a sculptural element in their own right.

As a construction detail, all the steps below adhere to a basic 4″ riser to 12″ tread ratio.

The pics below show some of these uses of steps.

What do the steps below do in the garden’s design?  At first glance, the steps are bold and strong, as if reinforcing an axis.  Yet in plan view, they do not appear to do so.  They certainly accentuate the landform in which they are situated.  They also have an air of mystery; where do they lead?  I think as much as anything however, they are a gesture.  These steps are of a scale that says, in effect, “we belong in a grand garden, therefore, this is a grand garden.”  Nothing wrong with that.



Notice, from the top pic to this one, how the vegetation frames the space.  Although the steps are the same width, from this angle as one approaches the base of the stairs it appears that they are varied.


The pic above shows how steps can reinforce an axis.   These lead from the glade into the “tilt” area (where jousts were supposedly held in the middle ages) and then up into the hillside.  This is reminiscent of Italian hillside gardens, albeit on a more accentuated horizontal scale.   The lack of connection of either set of stairs to a walkway also suggests that these steps are symbolic rather than functional.


In the pic above note the side slope walls containing the steps;  they don’t disappear into the landscape like the grand staircase shown above.  The grass surroundings necessitate a cleaner edge than is needed with the grand stair, which has the woody plants surrounding it.

The pic below shows the axis the steps are reinforcing.   Straight out into the larger landscape, and but for the informality,  similar to the classical French conception.



(Above) The steps of mystery.   Although you can clearly see where they lead, it is almost impossible to resist walking up these steps.   They are tucked so neatly into the slope and highlighted with the walls and urns they nearly demand being tread upon.

Below, practical steps.  These are merely a means from one level to another.  Notice the nice overhang giving definition, the un-uniform pavers on the risers and treads, and the informality of the edge.


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1 Response to Garden Details: English Edition – Steps

  1. Pingback: Garden Details: English Edition – Walks and Paths | bella citta

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